Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Finishing Up The Season: 30 Rock

Reviewing my old posts, I was surprised to discover that, due to its late premiere date in October, I had only written about the first two episodes of the just-wrapped season of “30 Rock.” In order to recap this past year, I went through each episode’s description to refresh my memory. I’ll try to provide brief commentary on what I liked and disliked, and then a general overall picture of why “30 Rock” is still alright but wasn’t awesome overall this year.

To begin, Steve Martin’s episode, “Gavin Volure,” was a highlight, without question the best episode of the season. The guest turn by the always great Peter Dinklage as a problematically petite companion of Liz’s was also fun. Some episodes, like “Flu Shot,” were wastes of time, and others, like “Reunion” and “Retreat to Move Forward” (the titles pretty much describe the plots), as well as Jack planning his own 50th birthday party, were unfocused and unrelated to the grander scheme of Liz, Jack, and TGS. Jon Hamm’s guest spot was well played-out, starting with Liz’s probing into his mail, leading to their dates gone wrong, and ending with him unwittingly coasting through life on his good looks. Salma Hayek’s arc was decent, but it never really got off the ground. “30 Rock” was funny this year, at some times flat-out hilarious, but it continues to feel devastatingly random more often than it should. Sending Kenneth to Queens to get Liz’s phone back isn’t terribly interesting, exciting, or explainable, and worse still, it’s awfully reminiscent of the far more supreme hunt for the elusive mystery sandwich shop from last year.

Characters like Jenna and Kenneth felt hopelessly forced and seemed to be inserted into the main storyline only to garner attention, as both of their characters try to do on a regular basis, be it through nagging whining or dim-witted omnipresence. Kenneth being suspected as a serial killer and Jenna’s boring Janis Joplin ordeal were among the poorer choices plot-wise this season. Tracy, by contrast, was actually a much better character than he’s been up until now, and his craziness was fully fleshed out and wonderfully wacky. Some of the show’s gimmicks like the Funcooker were pretty funny, and that’s where the show still succeeds best: one truly hilarious plot point every once in a while. This year, it wasn’t on fire as often as it was last year, but it’s by no means become a substandard show. Taking the characters out of their usual surroundings too much is possibly the lead detractor from the show’s typically great quality. Liz’s time spent getting to love a leisure group that turns out to be a fight club is mildly amusing, but it pales in comparison to her interactions with everyone at TGS, namely not our two resident attention-seekers (Kenneth and Jenna), but instead Tracy (who is more of an attention-seeker, true, but he doesn’t hide it) and the writers. Experiments like having Liz and Tracy treated equally worked pretty well, and I think that’s the direction “30 Rock” should strive for in its future years.

The second-to-last episode of the season proved much more focused and full than the rest of the season, with an amusing plotline involving Tracy’s illegitimate son and the questionable age of black people, and an appearance by Alan Alda as Jack’s kidney-seeking father. The “Mammia Mia” parallel was great, and perfectly fitting for the show and its two lead characters. I could have done without the benefit concert in the final episode as well as the stretched-out “That’s a Dealbreaker” sketch, but at least the flurry of guest stars isn’t getting obnoxious, like it did on “Will & Grace.” While Jennifer Aniston and Megan Mullally proved to be completely uninteresting, their star status didn’t impinge on the show’s trademark off-kilter sensibility, and it’s a tribute to everyone involved in making the show that it’s maintained its uniqueness despite so many famous people stopping by on such a regular basis. And while the show hasn’t been quite as strong as it was last year, it’s never been bad, and I think it’s easily possible that it can start off strong again next year. The closing line of the finale is a hopeful sign: Jack’s response to Liz’s declaration that it’s been a great year, “What are you talking about Lemon? It’s only May.” This show still does know what it’s doing, I’m pretty certain of that.

Season finale: B
Season grade: B/B+
Season MVP: Tina Fey

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